Why are you always hungry?

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  • Many of us experience food cravings even when we are full.
  • Knowing what underpins our hunger signals can help us control our appetite.
  • Some hormones inhibit our appetite, while others have the opposite effect.

Are you constantly feeling peckish, even right after finishing your last meal?

You're not the only one – research has shown that approximately 50% of people report low satiety levels.

So, how can we beat these cravings and curb our insatiable appetite? We are going to explore possible reasons why we feel hungry all the time and then look at simple changes we can make to our diet and lifestyle that can help us take control of our appetite.

The biology behind your appetite

Knowing the biology that underpins our hunger signals helps us better understand our appetite. The biological control of food intake is regulated by hormonal pathways.

Some hormones inhibit our appetite (such as leptin and insulin), while others increase our appetite, including ghrelin and neuropeptide Y (NPY).

Other stimuli that curb our hunger are raised blood sugar levels and the activation of stretch receptors in our stomach and intestines.

In addition, stress and sleep deprivation can also stimulate hunger in our brains. We also have the hedonic pathway or reward-based appetite regulation that can override our normal hormonal signals of satiety.

The sight, smell or taste of highly palatable foods releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine which stimulates areas of our brain associated with pleasure and reward, increasing our desire for specific tasty foods.

Top tips to take control of your hunger and satiety cues 

1. Increase your fibre intake

Changing our diet and lifestyle habits to complement our biology can help us regulate these hunger signals and achieve satiety.

All too often our diets are too low in fibre. If we are eating refined starches (white bread, white rice, mielie meal) we will not meet our recommended daily intake of 25g of fibre for women and 38g for men.

A top tip is to include a high fibre starch (> 6g of fibre per 100g of food) in every meal we eat.

Fibre is found in wholegrains such as rolled oats, corn, quinoa, bulgur wheat, spelt, wild brown rice, heavily seeded bread, barley, high-fibre breakfast cereals and legumes such as dry beans and lentils.

It is also found in fresh fruit and vegetables. By choosing high fibre foods, we are increasing the volume of food that enters our stomachs. This stimulates the stretch receptors in our stomach wall, informing our brain that we are getting full. 

2. Manage blood glucose levels

After eating foods made with refined grains, white flour and sugar, our blood sugar levels spike and drop rapidly.

Drops in our blood sugars are associated with increased hunger and low levels of satiety. Eating whole grains helps to slow down the release of sugar into our bloodstream.

In addition, to gain long-lasting satiety, include a lean protein source (eggs, fish, chicken, lean mince, low-fat dairy, legumes) with whole grains as both components increase feelings of fullness compared to just one. 

3. Avoid skipping meals 

Skipping meals can impact your hunger cues; it can lead to low blood sugar levels and increased secretion of hunger hormones.

Should you skip a meal, you are more likely to overeat and choose foods that are high in fat, sugar or salt when you eat your next meal.

These food choices can further drive the hedonic rewards pathway of appetite control and worsen our ability to control feelings of hunger.

4. Drink enough water

Be aware that you may be confusing thirst with hunger. When you crave food, first drink some water or a low-calorie, sugar-free drink to quench your thirst.

Aim for eight glasses of water per day, depending on your weight and activity levels.

You may find that drinking more water keeps those hunger pangs at bay. 

5. Get enough sleep 

Did you know that your sleeping habits can affect your food choices? Research has shown that individuals who are sleep deprived (less than seven hours of sleep) have a significantly increased intake of high-calorie foods.

Sleep hygiene techniques, such as turning off screens, pre-bedtime relaxation and not eating before going to bed, can ensure adequate rest, which will support healthier food choices the next day. 

6. Check your mental health and emotional wellbeing

Other factors that increase our hunger signals include stress, as well as feelings of anxiety, frustration, sadness, aggravation, or boredom.

Implementing healthy stress management practices like yoga, hobbies (arts, crafts, reading), exercise or meditation can alleviate stress-driven snacking.

One should also practise mindful eating techniques like dishing onto a plate, eating slowly and without distractions. This increases the brain’s sensitivity to the hormonal signals, aiding early satiety and increased feelings of fullness.

READ | 5 reasons why intermittent fasting may not be right for you

READ | How to put the brakes on 'emotional eating'

READ | 7 reasons why you are always feeling hungry

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